Let's be clear on thing regarding House Speaker Michael Madigan's role in the Metra scandal: he probably didn't break any laws.
As State Rep. Jack Franks told Reboot's Madeleine Doubek last week: "The Speaker knows the law, he writes the law, and he doesn't break the law. He doesn't cross the line... He follows the rules."
But let's also be clear on a second point: Whether he broke any laws is all but irrelevant here. The biggest problem in Illinois' political culture of corruption isn't outright law-breaking. We can list dozens of convictions from the George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich investigations (not to mention lots of lesser-known cases) in which law-breakers were caught, tried and convicted.
The problem is what politicians can do within the law - but should know better. Specifically, they should know better than to use our tax dollars to create a privileged, connected class of public employees who can rely on their political patrons to get them jobs, promotions and raises. They should know better than to meddle in the business of managers who, like former Metra chief Alex Clifford, are hired to bring efficiency to an operation.
The Chicago Tribune made this point loud and clear in its Sunday editorial.
"Madigan has spent so long dictating what he wants that he evidently doesn't know what humbler Illinoisans do know: 'Illegal,' 'wrong' and 'corrupt' are not synonyms. You can operate within our laws and still be grossly guilty of unfairness, of cheating, of exploiting your public office," writes the Tribune.
The Tribune stops just short of calling for Madigan's resignation, but not before further making its case that Madigan is willfully blind to his own power and influence.
"Madigan also doesn't know it's wrong to exert his clout -- as he admits he did in hustling a raise for one of his political workers -- at an agency whose budget he can influence. An agency he can punish, maybe now, maybe years from now...
"The most damning thing Michael Madigan doesn't know is that when he influences public decisions where he doesn't belong, when he slyly slips his much-coveted thumb onto one of state government's many scales, he cheats all the people who don't have his equally precious ear....
"Maybe he does know these things, yet is so trapped in his self-spun web of influence -- the one which unfortunately now has damaged his daughter -- that he can't afford to care.
"Because to care would, for any person of conscience, mean to leave."
Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Carol Marin notes that Madigan's quest to maintain and wield his considerable power has been detrimental to the two things he cares about:
"Mike Madigan, it's been argued, cares deeply about only two things. His family. And his power.
As we've seen in the last few months, it is the misuse of that power that's perverted just about everything including:
· A legislative session that produced neither pension reform nor same-sex marriage.
· A Metra debacle that once again proved that in Illinois, patronage always matters more than taxpayers or fiscal fairness.
· And a daughter's opportunity, assuming she really could do it, to show that in government there can be more than one kind of Madigan."
But the Metra scandal hasn't just been a Chicago and suburban news event. Around the state, political observers are criticizing Madigan's actions both in exerting influence at Metra and in his apparent role in thwarting his daughter's plans for higher office.
Here's Jim Dey of The News-Gazette in Champaign:
"Indeed, he's so powerful that he's the only one who could have scuttled his daughter's plans to run for governor.
"He did so by refusing to retire. And why should he go anyway? He's only been in the Illinois House for 43 years and held the position of speaker 28 out of the last 30 years, more than ample time to be one of the main architects of Illinois' current disastrous circumstances...
"Meanwhile, Speaker Madigan will remain in charge for the duration while his daughter searches for a higher political office to seek after she easily wins re-election next year. If she's serious about not running for governor while her dad remains speaker, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who is up for election in 2016, better kick his fundraising plans into a higher gear."
Neither is this playing well in Peoria, where the editorial board of the Peoria Journal Star wonders if there's always been a conflict of interest in having a father-daughter combination of the most powerful member of the legislative branch and its top attorney.
"Considering Illinois' well-earned reputation for official corruption and the legal lapses that today define our state, one could argue that the attorney general is the more significant and consequential office and that we are not well served by having either the attorney general or the governor "from the same family" as the speaker of the House. Or one could assume that Ms. Madigan fully understands that real power is already sufficiently consolidated. If this weren't so serious, it would almost be humorous."
That's a point also addressed by Chicago Tribune columnist and blogger Eric Zorn. Zorn starts his column explaining his belief that Michael Madigan's role as a political overlord largely has been a media creation. But he believes last week's events have changed that, damaging the Madigan name among average Illinoisans who previously hadn't given it much thought.
"Given the nature of Clifford's accusations, is the state well served by having an attorney general and speaker of the House from the same family?
"Her answer to that at a later news conference -- that the questioner had been reading too much of Tribune columnist John Kass -- was neither reassuring nor resounding. She also deftly parried the question of whether her father had ever pressured her to hire or promote his allies, saying only that she was not involved in such decisions in her office...
"(M)y sense is that now, the Madigan name has lost some luster.
"Oh, Lisa Madigan will be re-elected handily over token opposition in 2014, no question. But the common belief that she can simply pick her next promotion -- hmm, shall I win the U.S. Senate race 2016? Or the governor's race in 2018? -- has been shaken."
- See more at Reboot Illinois